Sermon: Faith Leapers
Scripture: Luke 7: 11-17; 36-40; 44-50
Date: February 28, 2016
“One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” Those are truly iconic words and with them one of the greatest adventures of humanity to date began. Human beings walking and working on the moon. And if you think about it, most of humanity’s greatest achievements began with small steps that turned into giant leaps that changed our world forever. And I think that those words are a great description of this journey with Jesus that we are on. For the most part our journey with Christ is a journey of small steps, hopefully forward steps, though sometimes we step in the wrong direction. But there comes that time in our journey when we must make giant leaps of faith, if we are to continue following Jesus. The writer of Hebrews understood that and wrote: Now faith is being sure of what we hope for but certain of that we do not see. He then proceeds with a long litany of faith leapers. People like Noah who built an ark to shelter creation from the rain even before the first drop of rain ever fell on the earth. And Abraham, left his homeland to go to a place that he had never seen or heard of because the God whom He had not known promised to make of him and his descendants a great nation. And Moses, called to go alone and unarmed against the most powerful man in the world, a man that he had grown up believing was a god, and demand that he release a people who were Egypts most efficient work force, a people that he had never known to journey to a homeland that none of them had ever known. And the list goes on. Dozens of persons listed by the writer of Hebrews, those who were known in Jesus time as the great patriarchs and saints of the faith, from all walks of life who all were called upon by God to make great leaps of faith.
Which brings us to the next stop on this journey with Jesus to Discipleship. (SHOW MAP). Luke tells us that Jesus left Capernaum and traveled “to a town called Nain”. Now by the time that Jesus arrives at Nain with the disciples and a large crowd, it is apparent that his growing reputation as a faith healer and a rabbi has proceeded Him. In between Capernaum and Nain, Luke inserts a couple of healing stories where people come to Jesus as he is traveling asking for healing for themselves and others. So He is getting a reputation. But we also need to understand that He was not the only faith healer that was traveling the land. So the fact that Jesus was a healer did not also make it clear in the minds of the people that He was the Messiah. They had seen it before. But certainly the people would have been curious at the least and hopeful at the most in regards to who Jesus was. And so He comes to Nain and as they pass through the city gate, they pass a funeral procession on the way to the cemetery. Archeologists in excavating the presumed site of Nain have found in fact a large cemetery on the outskirts of the remains of the city. In the past a church was built on that sight to commemorate the raising of the Widow’s son. And so Jesus stopped out of respect as the procession passed and apparently asked someone as they passed, who had died. And you can imagine one of the mourners saying “why it was the only son of that poor lady over there. And she’s a widow too.” Now to us that might seem like just a passing comment designed to invoke even greater sympathy. This woman had suffered tragedy on top of tragedy. But for the Jew it was a statement laced with dire consequences. The implication really was that this was a funeral procession not just for the boy that had died but also for his mother because a childless widow in those days had no means of support and would struggle to survive. So what Jesus did that day in Nain was essentially restore two lives – the boy who had died and the woman who had lost all hope. So this really is a great miracle in the eyes of the people, as well as the Disciples, and in response Luke indicates that some began to believe that perhaps He was the Messiah sent by God, at the very least a great prophet, but there were others, even John the Baptist, who still weren’t so sure. And we will later learn that it was this exercise of power over life and death that began to unite the Jewish leaders in their opposition to Jesus. In fact, some quickly began to spread the word that the truth was that a mistake had been made. That the boy had not really been dead, but was just sleeping. It was not an uncommon occurrence actually. That was why the Jews waited for three days after a body was laid in the tomb before they prepared it for final burial. And this was the same story they would later tell when Jairus’ daughter was raised by Jesus. “The little girl is not dead, she is only sleeping.” But they could not say that about Lazarus because he had been in the grave for four days before Jesus called him back to life. And so after the raising of Lazarus, arrest warrants had been issued for both Jesus and Lazarus because this mastery over death could not be tolerated. It was blasphemy. So we read this story and we see that not only did Jesus have the power over life, but for the first time we see that he also had the power over death. And since the power of life over death was the exclusive providence of God, Luke tells us that some in Nain began to believe that Jesus must be the Messiah sent from God. But you know, as I re-read this story in preparation for this message, I couldn’t help but wonder, “How did He know? How did He know that He had this power to raise people from the dead?” Resurrection was not a commonly held belief and certainly not authority that was attributed to the Messiah. In fact, many Jews did not believe in a life after death of any kind. They believed that death was the realm of evil and against the very nature of God. And the Angels that had come to Mary and Joseph to foretell His birth had not included resurrection as one of the things that Jesus would bring to the world. And up to that point there had not been any indication in his own actions that indicated he could give back the gift of life once it had left the body. So how did He know that He had power over life and death? I wonder if it was in that night of prayer on the mountain above Capernaum that God had revealed to Him this power. But I can’t help but think that for a moment the human nature in him doubted that He could really do what His heart was leading Him to do – call that boy back to life. But He did it anyway. He took the Leap. And one small step for God, became a giant leap for humanity into eternal life. And by making that leap from death to life, He calls His Disciples to be Faith Leapers with Him. “As you go with Me, as you follow me, He said, you will heal the sick, and cleanse the lepers, and raise the dead, and cast out devils. Freely you have received, now you must freely give.” Disciples not only walk with Jesus, we are expected to leap with Him.
And I would contend that the second story – the story of the woman of ill repute who cleans and anoints the feet of Jesus is also a story about resurrection and faith leaping. Because this woman was dead in her sorrow and her sin and Jesus brought her back to life. Look at this story. Simon the Pharisee has invited Jesus to his home for dinner. Now this was normally an act of great respect but it is clear that was not what Simon had in mind. In fact He is apparently intent on humiliating Jesus because He does not offer Him the usual amenities that are afforded to an honored guest. The most obvious slight is not having a servant there to wash Jesus’ feet as was the custom. Now two things we need to know about meals offered in the home of wealthy and prominent people. First is that the guests at the meal would gather around what was known as a reclining table. It was so named because the guests at the meal would recline head first rather than sit or even stand. They would prop themselves up on their left elbow to eat and their feet would be extended away from the table because the feet were considered to be the most unclean part of the body, physically and spiritually. But at a reclining meal they were also one of the most visible parts of the body. And dirty feet were a sign of low status. Not even a servant to wash the dust off his feet. Then the second thing we need to know was that there was this odd custom that the meal would be in an open courtyard and people would come and watch them eat. There was so much curiosity about this meal because already there was an awareness of the conflict between the Jewish Leadership and Jesus. So here they are dining together because meals were the ancient signs of reconciliation. And so people gathered just outside the open courtyard to witness the reconciliation of the Jews and their Messiah. But from the beginning it was clear that Simon had no such reconciliation in mind and instead the crowd became eye witnesses to the animosity that Simon directed towards Jesus. They must have been murmuring, “Simon didn’t even have someone to wash His feet when Jesus came to eat”. And this woman that many scholars identify as a prostitute, some even say Mary Magdalene, was a part of the crowd and had seen and heard enough of the disrespect and she breaks from the crowd and rushes to Jesus. And Luke says she washed Jesus feet with her tears. What we need to know is that Luke is probably not saying that her tears were so free flowing that she was able to wash his feet with them. (PICTURE OF TEAR BOTTLES). The practice of the day was for women to wear around their necks a little clay or glass bottle like this one that she would use to collect her tears and then carry them with her. And so Luke wants us to understand that this woman had led such a tragic, unhappy life that her tear bottle was full enough to wash the feet of a grown man. That would take a lot of tears. So she pours at Jesus feet the sorrows and regrets and pains and sins of her entire life. And if that isn’t enough she does what would be completely unacceptable in the eyes of Simon the Pharisee and his other guests, as if interrupting his dinner and his public humiliation of Jesus wasn’t enough, but because there was no towel provided, she takes down her own hair and dries Jesus feet. Now we need to understand just what a giant leap of faith she is taking here. Simon the Pharisee has every reason, according to the law, to have her stoned to death. Actually two reasons. First as a prostitute she is guilty of adultery. There was another time that a prostitute was brought before Jesus with the intent that she be stoned to death for her sin, but Jesus forgave her sin, thereby removing her guilt and so the reason that she was to be stoned. This woman is guilty. She avoided men like Simon, the keepers of the law, at least in public, because she knew that if she gained their attention, she was leaving herself vulnerable to retribution. And then secondly, by letting down her hair in a public place she was violating the law. According to the law a woman letting her hair down in public was the same as public nudity which was also an offense that left her open to being stoned to death according to the law. And yet she was willing to take the risk, to take this leap of faith, because she believed that Jesus could save her. She was a faith leaper. And then if that was not bad enough, Jesus did offer her salvation. In what I think was a leap of faith for Jesus, He takes it upon Himself to forgive her. “Your sins are forgiven. Your faith has saved you. Peace be with you.” How did He know that He had the power to forgive her. How does He know my sin and that my greatest need is most often the need to be forgiven? And when the need arises am I willing to take the leap of faith and seek the forgiveness that Christ offers? Are you? Disciples are Faith Leapers. Now here’s the interesting thing about these two stories when told side by side. In the eyes of the Pharisees that were gathered with Simon that night, reclining around the table, Jesus forgiving this woman was even more shocking then raising the boy from the dead had been. “He can’t do that. Only God can forgive sins.” You see, here’s the bottom line. Ultimately whether the widow’s son lived or died was little concern to Him. That could easily be explained away and if some wanted to view that as a sign of the Messiah, let them. There had been false Messiahs before. But Jesus claiming the authority to forgive sin was a different matter. Because if Jesus was able to forgive this woman, to offer her salvation, then it threatened everything that they believed in. It even threatened the Temple which thrived on sin, and the sacrificial system as the atonement for sin. But this woman’s leap of faith had landed her right at the heart of God. Forgiveness emanates from the heart of God and Jesus claiming the power over sin was the same as claiming to be God. And, here’s the thing, often the hardest part of the path to travel is to to that place where we are forgiven by God. Sometimes it takes a great leap of faith in order to feel as though we’ve been forgiven by God or to reach that place where we can forgive others in the name of Jesus. But it is a leap that Disciples must make again and again as we continue on this journey with Jesus because Sin places many obstacles in the path of discipleship, not the least of which is death both spiritually and physically. And when we come up against those obstacles, Disciples must be Faith Leapers if we are going to continue to walk with Jesus.
About once a year I go to Lake Junaluska in North Carolina for a week of Continuing Education. On my way down, rather than take the most direct route by interstate, I often get off the interstate and take the road through Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg and then through the Great Smoky National Park to Cherokee and come to Junaluska the back way. And I often take the time to hike a path that is labeled a quiet walkway. The guidebook rates it as an easy hike and it is. It winds along next to a small river. In most spots it is wide and smooth. And it follows the river for about a mile into the woods. But eventually the path ends at a deep ravine that the river has carved out. There is no way to cross it on foot. And every time I reach the end, I gaze across that ravine to the other side and find myself longing to take the leap across and continue my hike on the other side. But I never do. I turn around and retrace my steps along that easy path until I eventually come to the beginning where I left my car. Often times my journey of faith is like that. As long as I am on the easy path, I feel as though I am progressing in my relationship with Christ. But inevitably I come to that ravine and I am faced with the choice of whether to make the leap and continue my journey with Jesus or turn back, content with the easy path that eventually leads me nowhere. Too often I choose to turn back to that which is familiar and easy. Often times in the church we choose to stay on the familiar paths. We worship in the familiar ways. We serve in the familiar areas. And we hang out with the familiar people. But disciples are not content on the quiet easy paths. Disciples are Leapers who follow Jesus to whatever lies on the other side no matter what that might mean to us personally. Leaping all the obstacles into life and salvation through and with Him. And the first leap is the one from your pew to this altar. Is Christ calling you to make that leap today. And here’s the thing, this will certainly not be the last time that Jesus calls you to be a Leaper. Christian service and witness requires that we constantly make leaps of faith. What is Jesus calling you to leap into as you continue on this path of Discipleship. In fact I suspect that the further we go in this journey with Jesus we will discover that we grow more by leaps and bounds then we will by small steps. Are you ready to take the leap? To be a Disciple you must be a Faith Leaper.